How School Shootings Affect Private Schools

Soap L. 
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December 16, 2019

On November 14, 2019, a sixteen-year-old boy named Nathaniel Berhow entered his school and shot others with a 0.45-caliber handgun, killing two students and injuring three others before turning the gun on himself. The shooting took place at Saugus High School in Santa Clarita, a mere 40 miles away from Westridge. The latest shooting adds to the growing list of attacks on school campuses, with as many as 45 shootings taking place at elementary and high schools this year alone. 

However, the majority of the school shootings that have taken place over the past couple of decades have been in public schools. Cato Institute reports that out of the 134 school shootings that have taken place from 2000 to 2018, only eight have happened in private schools

So why are fewer private schools targeted for attacks? According to a survey conducted by Alfred University, depression and bullying are the leading causes of a school shooter’s motives. Private schools may have more resources, such as school counselors and specialized programs that address issues surrounding mental health, to support students with these issues. Westridge has both.

“Before coming to Westridge, I went to a public school. There was a time when a boy didn’t come to school but took his father’s gun, which led to an actual lockdown. Compared to my old school, Westridge seems safer and less threatening because of the environment and resources offered to others, such as Peer to Peer,” said Caris L. ’21, a member of Peer to Peer, the school’s peer counseling program. “As a peer mentor, I’m trained to listen and create a space for people that want to be heard.” 

And she is not the only one who feels this way. “I think that in many cases internal strifes concerning mental health consume and fog a shooter’s mind. From what I have heard, it seems like mental health struggles are a sudden motivator in this kind of crime,” said Briar B. ’23.

Arnold Spokane, a professor of Counseling Psychology, touches upon three common types of school shooters: the traumatized, the psychopathic, and the psychotic shooter. While the first type is the result of environmental factors, the other two are more connected to biological factors.  A student’s access to resources can also determine behavior. “I’m available to all the students if they need or want to see me. Often, I have students come see me if they have something that’s bothering them, if they’re having trouble, or if they’re worried about something. I create a therapeutic space for them by listening and helping them. I’m a resource to help students if they need it,” said Dr. Lisa Carruthers, Director of Counseling and Student Support. Dr. Carruthers is also a licensed psychologist.

Westridge also supports students through its Human Development program.  “The HD program includes focused lesson plans which provide space for Westridge students to understand the causes and uses of stress, the impacts of anxiety on our ability to learn, and strategies for managing school-related stress and anxiety,” said Zoe Munoz, the Human Development Coordinator and Co-Dean of Student Voices. “In our talks on identity, we consider mental health to be a significant identity factor for members of our school community. When a school shooting or other form of mass violence takes place, we provide space in HD for students to check-in, vent, ask questions, and support one another.” 

Notably, between 1982 and 2019, of all the mass shootings with four or more victims, only three have been perpetrated by women. And out of all school shootings, around ten out of the 134 school shooters were women. Most shootings occur at public schools with male shooters. “Men tend to be more violent than women because of a complex interaction of evolutionary and psycho-social factors,” concluded Dewey G. Cornell, a clinical psychologist and director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project at the University of Virginia. “Men tend to be more aggressive and less inhibited by empathy, and men in distress seem to be less willing to turn to others for help.”

Men’s biological tendencies and societal expectations can create heightened levels of toxic masculinity.  Violence has become a way for men to establish power amongst themselves by killing others to assert their dominance. The emphasis on masculinity in our culture can be translated into physical violence and the power to hurt another human. “I think cis straight white men sometimes don’t realize how difficult life can be for other people. Maybe when things in life become harder for them because of financial trouble or other reasons, it shocks them,” said Marley M. ’22.

What environmental factors compel a former or current student to target a school? One could argue suicide. In a survey conducted by the United States Secret Service and United States Department of Education, 78% of attackers had a history of suicidal thoughts or suicide attempts before their attack. 61% had a history of feeling helpless or depressed, with 20% of high schoolers suffering depression before reaching adulthood.

Another factor is bullying. Between one out of four and one out of three students have reported they have been bullied. NPR reports that studies show social rejections at school can lead to depression and higher amounts of aggression and anxiety. 

Lack of peer or adult support could lead to violence. One in four schools does not offer school counselors. Many attackers have also come out of traumas growing up, such as unstable families, losses, and relationships, or physical and emotional abuse. A 1998 FBI report notes that “family dynamics are patterns of behavior, thinking, beliefs, traditions, roles....when a student has made a threat, knowledge within the student’s family...is a key factor in understanding circumstances and stresses in the student’s life that could play a role in any decision to carry out the threat.”

Even though there is a greater movement to change laws involving gun control, the debate surrounding the topic has been detrimental toward people with mental illnesses. “While mental illness can be a part of a shooter’s motivation, the continual blame placed on mental illness itself not only minimizes the issue of American’s lack of gun control but also perpetuates the stigma that people who struggle with their mental health are inherently dangerous,” said Kat M. ’21.

It should be noted that while public schools are more prone to school shootings than private schools, only 3.8% of mass shooters are females.  Lawmakers have yet to consider how these important factors might shape public policy and its response to school violence.

 

SUGGESTIONS FOR FURTHER READING

 

CNN’s infographics on school shootings: 10 Years. 180 School Shootings. 356 Victims.

 

NBC News’s Saugus High School shooting report: Suspected gunman in Southern California high school shooting dies

 

Real Clear Education’s suggested motives of school shooters: The Answer to School Violence Is Social-Emotional Learning